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On October 4th, ministerial officials from the U.S., U.K. and Australia published an open letter to Facebook, requesting the company to delay plans to implement ‘end to end encryption’ across Facebook messaging platforms. End to end encryption, or E2EE, would greatly increase individual security and privacy by all but removing the ability for third-parties to view messages between individuals. The countries allege that the use of encryption services could detriment ‘public safety’ – particularly with reference to terrorist threats and vulnerable citizens such as children.
The group, which includes Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, and the U.K. Secretary of State for the Home Department Priti Patel, went further, stating that the move, “Also impedes law enforcement’s ability to investigate these and other serious crimes,” referring to both terrorism and child grooming and sexual abuse. In lieu of this, the letter requests that Facebook keep ‘public safety’ in mind by “enabl[ing] law enforcement to obtain lawful access to content in a readable and usable format,” a practice commonly referred to as a ‘backdoor.’
Yet, a statement made by the tech giant in March went to great lengths to ensure all precautions were being taken with regards to the balance between public security and individual privacy. ‘A privacy focused vision for social networking’ stated clearly that it was Facebook’s intent to “consult with safety experts, law enforcement and governments on the best way to implement safety measures.” Yet even in spite of these assurances, the coalition of states seems to believe that a backdoor is the only viable approach.
The importance of striking a balance between E2EE and public safety is important, but on the whole, it is unlikely that the implementation of E2EE will damage government’s ability to seek out criminals. As noted by Senior Officer for Human Rights Watch (HRW), Kian Vesteinsson, “states have extraordinary technological capabilities to surveil, investigate, and prosecute.” The implementation of encryption will likely to benefit and protect individuals, such as traditionally persecuted groups and human rights activists. This is particularly relevant with reference to journalists, who in many oppressive regimes – and increasingly in democracies – face prosecution if they take action that is perceived to criticize or undermine the state. Granting government access to data through a backdoor has the potential to seriously undermine the security of individuals as the backdoor would also be open for other state and non-state actors to utilise. In short, a backdoor has serious potential to be misused, even by democratic states.
Facebook’s plan is to use encryption across all of its messaging services. This includes Facebook Messenger and Instagram, while WhatsApp already employs the technology. Encryption would mean that only the sender and receiver of the data would be able to access it – not even Facebook would be able to read the data. According to the open letter, in 2018 Facebook has been responsible for approximately 90 percent of all reporting to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The debate over encryption began in 2016, when Apple refused to provide a key to the FBI to access the iPhone of one of the killers from the San Bernardino mass shooting. The FBI later found a way to infiltrate the phone without the assistance of Apple. The debate around encryption is essentially a tug-of-war between national security and individual privacy.
Despite alarms about the potential for public safety to be reduced, a ‘backdoor’ is not the solution to state concerns. Encryption is a critical service provided by a growing number of online platforms, which boosts individual rights and protections for all users, regardless of their nationality. While it is critical to protect citizens from unnecessary harm, it would be far better to do this without negating the benefits of E2EE. A backdoor has the potential to seriously undermine the individual freedoms of all users by granting unnecessary power to law enforcement agencies. In this way, a backdoor has the potential to cause significant harm.